I just returned from a wonderful vacation in Turkey, which I’ve long wanted to visit for its many historical and ancient sites, including biblical Ephesus, ancient Troy, and Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine Empire. My journey made me appreciate Turkey in more ways than I can list here, including the people’s pride in being a democracy and their love of the founder of the Republic, Ataturk, as well as the friendliness, politeness, and goodwill of the Turkish people; almost everyone I spoke to had been to the United States or had a relative living here. I realized just how small the world is and how we are far more alike than different to our neighbors in this world.
One pleasant surprise I had while in Turkey was to discover the book Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. I had heard his name but never investigated his books, so to discover he had written a book about Istanbul that includes the city’s history and his memories of growing up in it in the 1950s-1970s made me feel what a small world it is. Considering I have written a similar book about Marquette, I felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. I read the entire book on the plane flying home. In addition to the text, Pamuk includes many black and white photos of Istanbul, which I can’t reproduce here, but I am including a few photos of Istanbul that I took myself on my vacation.
What I enjoyed about Istanbul: Memories and the City was not only the history and memories that Pamuk describes, but when I say he is like a kindred spirit, it’s because many of the things he says about living in Istanbul are very similar to things I’ve said about living in Marquette and my relationship to my hometown. Here are a few passages from his book:
“I’ve never left Istanbul—never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood.”
Similarly, I feel like the Marquette of my childhood is constantly with me—I am continually finding myself remembering being in the Marquette Mall or eating at the Bavarian Inn or attending nursery school at the Presbyterian Church.
“Istanbul’s fate is my fate: I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”
Similarly, the history of Marquette flows through my veins and that of seven generations of my ancestors. To understand me, you have to understand my family background, the beauty and history I grew up surrounded by in my hometown.
“I was beginning to understand that I loved Istanbul for its ruins, its huzun, for the glories once possessed and later lost.”
Pamuk talks a lot about the city’s huzun, a word meaning melancholy. He writes of growing up in the 1950s surrounded by a family in mourning for the glories of the Ottoman empire that vanished with the coming of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s. While I don’t doubt Pamuk realizes the Republic was preferable to being ruled by a Sultan, he has an appreciation for the glories of the past. His grandmother and elderly relatives have turned their homes into what feel like museums. Similarly, I grew up surrounded by grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles who told me of Marquette’s past and stories of their parents and grandparents. I felt a certain melancholy in longing to know the Marquette of the past prior to my lifetime and the glories of the past that no longer existed, such as the Superior Hotel, or the glories I saw disappearing such as St. John the Baptist Church being torn down.
“…anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves.”
Very true. My view of Marquette is conditioned by my upbringing and history. Others feel differently about it I’m sure, although I tried, in writing about it in my novels, to create some sort of collected consciousness about its history.
“…we cannot help loving our city like family. But we still have to decide what part of the city we love and invent the reasons why.”
I think the reasons become clear when we consider the difficulties of life in Upper Michigan. Economic issues and cold winters are trying and make a person create an argument for himself about why to remain, weighing the pros and cons.
“…if I had come to feel deeply connected to my city, it was because it offered me a deeper wisdom and understanding than any I could acquire in a classroom.”
Yes, I went to Istanbul, but deep down as a writer, I have always felt like Marquette was more than enough for me to write about. Everything I need as a writer I can find here. There are stories, diversity, history, culture, enough to fill many books as my writing has shown, and all those lead to lessons about life. As Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz, we need not go looking beyond our own backyards for our heart’s desire.
This last passage describes Pamuk beginning to collect information about his city before he even knew he would write someday about it, similar to how everything about Marquette’s history fascinated me and I collected books and articles about it and even old telephone books before I contemplated writing a series of novels about the place.
“I craved books and magazines about Istanbul—any type of printed matter, any programme, any timetable or ticket was valuable information to me and so I began to collect them. A part of me knew I could not keep these things for ever: after I had played with them for a while, I would forget them….in the early days I told myself that eventually it would all form part of a great enterprise….There were times—when every strange memento seemed saturated with the poetic melancholy of lost imperial greatness and its historical residue—that I imagined myself to be the only one who had unlocked the city’s secret….now I had embraced the city as my own—no one had ever seen it as I did now!”
I won’t go so far as to say no one ever saw Marquette the way I have, but one of the nicest compliments I have received about my novels is that they have made people look at the buildings of Marquette in different ways and see all the history that surrounds them. If anything, I hope my books have made people appreciate the past that once existed and still exists among us.
Marquette is world enough for me, but as a genealogy fanatic, I wanted to go to Turkey to explore what remained of the Byzantine Empire. For me, being in Hagia Sophia was especially a highlight. I have traced my family tree back to many Byzantine Emperors including Basil I and Alexios III, who would have worshiped in Hagia Sophia. I also visited the ruins of Troy and Ephesus where doubtless I also had ancestors centuries ago and now lost to time. My family’s past lies throughout the world. As James Michener said, “The world is my home,” and Marquette and Istanbul are not so very different—although in different ways, both are home.